Experimental researches in electricity/Introduction

Experimental researches in electricity
by Michael Faraday



London: J. M. DENT & SONS Ltd.

New York: E. P. DUTTON & CO.

First Issue of this Edition . 1914
Reprinted .... 1922


When from an Alpine height the eye of the climber ranges over the mountains, he finds that for the most part they resolve themselves into distinct groups, each consisting of a dominant mass surrounded by peaks of lesser elevation. The power which lifted the mightier eminences, in nearly all cases lifted others to an almost equal height. And so it is with the discoveries of Faraday. As a general rule, the dominant result does not stand alone, but forms the culminating point of a vast and varied mass of inquiry. In this way, round about his great discovery of magneto-electric induction, other weighty labours group themselves. His investigations on the extra current; on the polar and other condition of diamagnetic bodies; on lines of magnetic force, their definite character and distribution; on the employment of the induced magneto-electric current as a measure and test of magnetic action; on the revulsive phenomena of the magnetic field, are all, notwithstanding the diversity of title, researches in the domain of magneto-electric induction.

Faraday's second group of researches and discoveries embrace the chemical phenomena of the current. The dominant result here is the great law of definite electro-chemical decomposition, around which are massed various researches on electro-chemical conduction and on electrolysis both with the machine and with the pile. To this group also belong his analysis of the contact theory, his inquiries as to the source of voltaic electricity, and his final development of the chemical theory of the pile.

His third great discovery is the magnetisation of light, which I should liken to the Weisshorn among mountains—high, beautiful, and alone.

The dominant result of his fourth group of researches is the discovery of diamagnetism, announced in his memoir as the magnetic condition of all matter, round which are grouped his inquiries on the magnetism of flame and gases; on magne-crystallic action, and on atmospheric magnetism, in its relations to the annual and diurnal variation of the needle, the full significance of which is still to be shown.

These are Faraday's most massive discoveries, and upon them his fame must mainly rest. But even without them, sufficient would remain to secure for him a high and lasting scientific reputation. We should still have his researches on the liquefaction of gases; on frictional electricity; on the electricity of the gymnotus; on the source of power in the hydro-electric machine, the two last investigations being untouched in the foregoing memoir; on electro-magnetic rotations; on regelation; all his more purely chemical researches, including his discovery of benzol. Besides these he published a multitude of minor papers, most of which, in some way or other, illustrate his genius. I have made no allusion to his power and sweetness as a lecturer. Taking him for all and all, I think it will be conceded that Michael Faraday was the greatest experimental philosopher the world has ever seen; and I will add the opinion, that the progress of future research will tend, not to dim or to diminish, but to enhance and glorify the labours of this mighty investigator.

Thus far I have confined myself to topics mainly interesting to the man of science, endeavouring, however, to treat them in a manner unrepellent to the general reader who might wish to obtain a notion of Faraday as a worker. On others will fall the duty of presenting to the world a picture of the man. But I know you will permit me to add to the foregoing analysis a few personal reminiscences and remarks, tending to connect Faraday with a wider world than that of science—namely, with the general human heart.

One word in reference to his married life may find a place here. As in the former case, Faraday shall be his own spokesman. The following paragraph, though written in the third person, is from his hand:—"On June 12, 1821, he married, an event which more than any other contributed to his earthly happiness and healthful state of mind. The union has continued for twenty-eight years and has in no wise changed, except in the depth and strength of its character."

Faraday's immediate forefathers lived in a little place called Clapham Wood Hall, in Yorkshire. Here dwelt Robert Faraday and Elizabeth his wife, who had ten children, one of them, James Faraday, born in 1761, being father to the philosopher. A family tradition exists that the Faradays came originally from Ireland. Faraday himself has more than once expressed to me his belief that his blood was in part Celtic, but how much of it was so, or when the infusion took place, he was unable to say. He could imitate the Irish brogue, and his wonderful vivacity may have been in part due to his extraction. But there were other qualities which we should hardly think of deriving from Ireland. The most prominent of these was his sense of order, which ran like a luminous beam through all the transactions of his life. The most entangled and complicated matters fell into harmony in his hands. His mode of keeping accounts excited the admiration of the managing board of this institution. And his science was similarly ordered. In his experimental researches, he numbered every paragraph, and welded their various parts together by incessant reference. His private notes of the experimental researches, which are happily preserved, are similarly numbered: their last paragraph bears the figure 16,041. His working qualities, moreover, showed the tenacity of the Teuton. His nature was impulsive, but there was a force behind the impulse which did not permit it to retreat. If in his warm moments he formed a resolution, in his cool ones he made that resolution good. Thus his fire was that of a solid combustible, not that of a gas, which blazes suddenly, and dies as suddenly away.

And here I must claim your tolerance for the limits by which I am confined. No materials for a life of Faraday are in my hands, and what I have now to say has arisen almost wholly out of our close personal relationship.

Letters of his, covering a period of sixteen years, are before me, each one of which contains some characteristic utterance;—strong, yet delicate in counsel, joyful in encouragement, and warm in affection. References which would be pleasant to such of them as still live are made to Humboldt, Biot, Dumas, Chevreul, Magnus, and Arago. Accident brought these names prominently forward; but many others would be required to complete his list of continental friends. He prized the love and sympathy of men—prized it almost more than the renown which his science brought him. Nearly a dozen years ago it fell to my lot to write a review of his Experimental Researches for the Philosophical Magazine. After he had read it, he took me by the hand, and said, "Tyndall, the sweetest reward of my work is the sympathy and good will which it has caused to flow in upon me from all quarters of the world." Among his letters I find little sparks of kindness, precious to no one but myself, but more precious to me than all. He would peep into the laboratory when he thought me weary, and take me upstairs with him to rest. And if I happened to be absent he would leave a little note for me, couched in this or some other similar form:—"Dear Tyndall,—I was looking for you, because we were at tea—we have not yet done—will you come up?" I frequently shared his early dinner; almost always, in fact, while my lectures were going on. There was no trace of asceticism in his nature. He preferred the meat and wine of life to its locusts and wild honey. Never once during an intimacy of fifteen years did he mention religion to me, save when I drew him on to the subject. He then spoke to me without hesitation or reluctance; not with any apparent desire to "improve the occasion," but to give me such information as I sought. He believed the human heart to be swayed by a power to which science or logic opened no approach, and right or wrong, this faith, held in perfect tolerance of the faiths of others, strengthened and beautified his life.

From the letters just referred to, I will select three for publication here. I choose the first, because it contains a passage revealing the feelings with which Faraday regarded his vocation, and also because it contains an allusion which will give pleasure to a friend.

(Royal Institution.)
"Ventnor, Isle of Wight, June 28, 1854.

"MY DEAR TYNDALL,-You see by the top of this letter how much habit prevails over me; I have just read yours from thence, and yet I think myself there. However, I have left its science in very good keeping, and I am glad to learn that you are at experiment once more. But how is the health? Not well, I fear. I wish you would get yourself strong first and work afterwards. As for the fruits, I am sure they will be good, for though I sometimes despond as regards myself, I do not as regards you. You are young, I am old. . . . But then our subjects are so glorious, that to work at them rejoices and encourages the feeblest; delights and enchants the strongest.

"I have not yet seen anything from Magnus. Thoughts of him always delight me. We shall look at his black sulphur together. I heard from Schonbein the other day. He tells me that Liebig is full of ozone, i.e. of allotropic oxygen.

"Good-bye for the present.—Ever, my dear Tyndall, yours truly,

M. Faraday."

The contemplation of nature, and his own relation to her, produced in Faraday a kind of spiritual exaltation which makes itself manifest here. His religious feeling and his philosophy could not be kept apart; there was an habitual overflow of the one into the other.

Whether he or another was its exponent, he appeared to take equal delight in science. A good experiment would make him almost dance with delight. In November 1850, he wrote to me thus:—"I hope some day to take up the point respecting the magnetism of associated particles. In the meantime I rejoice at every addition to the facts and reasoning connected with the subject. When science is a republic, then it gains: and though I am no republican in other matters, I am in that." All his letters illustrate this catholicity of feeling. Ten years ago, when going down to Brighton, he carried with him a little paper I had just completed, and afterwards wrote to me. His letter is a mere sample of the sympathy which he always showed to me and my work.

"Brighton, December 9, 1857.

"My dear Tyndall,—I cannot resist the pleasure of saying how very much I have enjoyed your paper. Every part has given me delight. It goes on from point to point beautifully. You will find many pencil marks, for I made them as I read. I let them stand, for though many of them receive their answer as the story proceeds, yet they show how the wording impresses a mind fresh to the subject, and perhaps here and there you may like to alter it slightly, if you wish the full idea, i.e. not an inaccurate one, to be suggested at first; and yet after all I believe it is not your exposition, but the natural jumping to a conclusion that affects or has affected my pencil.

" We return on Friday, when I will return you the paper.—Ever truly yours,

M. Faraday."

The third letter will come in its proper place towards the end.

While once conversing with Faraday on science, in its relations to commerce and litigation, he said to me that at a certain period of his career he was forced definitely to ask himself, and finally to decide, whether he should make wealth or science the pursuit of his life. He could not serve both masters, and he was therefore compelled to choose between them. After the discovery of magneto-electricity his fame was so noised abroad that the commercial world would hardly have considered any remuneration too high for the aid of abilities like his. Even before he became so famous, he had done a little "professional business." This was the phrase he applied to his purely commercial work. His friend, Richard Phillips, for example, had induced him to undertake a number of analyses, which produced, in the year 1830, an addition to his income of more than a thousand pounds; and in 1831, a still greater addition. He had only to will it to raise in 1832 his professional business income to £5000 a year. Indeed, this is a wholly insufficient estimate of what he might, with ease, have realised annually during the last thirty years of his life.

While restudying the experimental researches with reference to the present memoir, the conversation with Faraday here alluded to came to my recollection, and I sought to ascertain the period when the question, "wealth or science," had presented itself with such emphasis to his mind. I fixed upon the year 1831 or 1832, for it seemed beyond the range of human power to pursue science as he had done during the subsequent years, and to pursue commercial work at the same time. To test this conclusion I asked permission to see his accounts, and on my own responsibility, I will state the result. In 1832, his professional business-income, instead of rising to £5000 or more, fell from £1090 4s. to £155 9s. From this it fell with slight oscillations to £92 in 1837, and to zero in 1838. Between 1839 and 1845, it never, except in one instance, exceeded £22; being for the most part much under this. The exceptional year referred to was that in which he and Sir Charles Lyell were engaged by Government to write a report on the Haswell Colliery explosion, and then his business income rose to £112. From the end of 1845 to the day of his death, Faraday's annual professional business income was exactly zero. Taking the duration of his life into account, this son of a blacksmith, and apprentice to a bookbinder, had to decide between a fortune of £150,000 on the one side, and his undowered science on the other. He chose the latter, and died a poor man. But his was the glory of holding aloft among the nations the scientific name England for a period of forty years.

The outward and visible signs of fame were also of less account to him than to most men. He had been loaded with scientific honours from all parts of the world. Without, I imagine, a dissentient voice, he was regarded as the prince of the physical investigators of the present age. The highest scientific position in this country he had, however, never filled. When the late excellent and lamented Lord Wrottesley resigned the presidency of the Royal Society, a deputation from the council, consisting of his lordship, Mr. Grove, and Mr. Gassiot, waited upon Faraday, to urge him to accept the president's chair. All that argument or friendly persuasion could do was done to induce him to yield to the wishes of the council, which was also the unanimous wish of scientific men. A knowledge of the quickness of his own nature had induced in Faraday the habit of requiring an interval of reflection, before he decided upon any question of importance. In the present instance he followed his usual habit, and begged for a little time.

On the following morning, I went up to his room, and said on entering that I had come to him with some anxiety of mind. He demanded its cause, and I responded "lest you should have decided against the wishes of the deputation that waited on you yesterday." "You would not urge me to undertake this responsibility," he said. "I not only urge you," was my reply, "but I consider it your bounden duty to accept it." He spoke of the labour that it would involve; urged that it was not in his nature to take things easy; and that if he became president, he would surely have to stir many new questions, and agitate for some changes. I said that in such cases he would find himself supported by the youth and strength of the royal society. This, however, did not seem to satisfy him. Mrs. Faraday came into the room, and he appealed to her. Her decision was adverse, and I deprecated her decision. " Tyndall," he said at length, "I must remain plain Michael Faraday to the last; and let me now tell you, that if I accepted the honour which the royal society desires to confer upon me, I would not answer for the integrity of my intellect for a single year." I urged him no more, and Lord Wrottesley had a most worthy successor in Sir Benjamin Brodie.

  1. These pages form the " Summary " and the concluding passages of Faraday the Discoverer; 1869.